Thursday, 17 April 2014

South Korean ship tragedy

Hopes are now beginning to fade in the search for survivors from the The Sewol ferry that sank off the coast of South Korea yesterday (16/4/2014). Nearly 180 people have been rescued so far, but there are still over 280 people missing (including many school children), so tragically the current confirmed death toll of 18 will probably  rise. Generally, I think the media coverage has been less sensationalist in their reporting of this tragedy than they could have been, but I did see some video from the BBC that had the headline 'footage shows panic as boats arrive' on the front page (although this changed to 'footage from boats shows rescue'  when one clicks on the link to the clip). As usual, the footage shows the exact opposite of clich├ęd accounts of 'panic' as people calmly wait their turn to be rescued and then get into the rescue boat in quite an orderly fashion. 

Information is still coming in about what caused this disaster, but there already seem to be similarities with the sinking of the Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy in January 2012. For instance, there is speculation that the ship deviated from its planned course & hit an underwater object, and the captain is currently being interviewed by Police after apparently being one of the first to abandon ship. Unlike the Costa Concordia though, many less people seem to have successfully evacuated, as the ship appears to have sank quickly in deeper waters. A distress call was sent out at around 09:00 local time, but the ferry sank within two hours. It seems that only two of the 46 life-rafts were launched, and this could be an indicator of how quickly the ship went down, as there may not have been time to launch others- especially because of the degree of listing shown in aerial footage, which would also have made evacuation more difficult. A similar disaster happened in 1994 when the MV Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea, killing over 800 people. An interview study with survivors (Cornwell et al, 2001) found that  the low number of survivors and apparent lack of co-operation could be explained much better in terms of the physical constraints of the situation (as the boat listed at a large angle and then quickly sank), rather than because people behaved in a selfish or 'panicked' way. 

Speculation is already emerging that one reason for the high number of people still missing is that they were told to wait and not evacuate from the Sewol until it was possibly too late, and the BBC quotes a survivor as saying;


"We must have waited 30 to 40 minutes after the crew told us to stay put. Then everything tilted over and everyone started screaming and scrambling to get out," 
In the same report another believed that more could have escaped if they had left in time;
"If people had jumped into the water... they could have been rescued. But we were told not to go out."
I haven't seen any explanations offered yet for why people were not told to evacuate immediately, and it is possible that such an order was not issued because the speed of the sinking meant that the seriousness of the situation was not realised until it was too late. However, I do hope that there were no attempts by the crew to withhold information from passengers. In a previous post on the sinking of the Costa Concordia, I highlighted some worrying reports that passengers were initially deceived as to the nature of the incident by the crew and were told that there was nothing to worry about. I argued that information should not be withheld from people in emergencies, as this can delay their evacuation until it becomes too late for them to escape successfully, and could end up having fatal consequences because of a misplaced fear that they would 'panic'.


References:
Cornwell, B., Harmon, W., Mason, M., Merz, B., & Lampe, M. (2001). Panic or situational constraints?The case of the M/V Estonia. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 19, 5-25.




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